LAS VEGAS (AP) - In a June 22 story about efforts to retrain police to reduce the number of shootings by officers, The Associated Press erroneously reported the name of a trainer quoted. The correct name is Pete Kruse, not Pete Crews. A corrected version of the story is below.
By 2 a.m., nearly five hours had ticked by since Stanley Gibson’s last call.
“Come get me,” the 43-year-old Gulf War veteran told his wife, Rondha, his voice edged by the panic of post-traumatic stress disorder. “I want to come home.”
But where was he? In the living room, Rondha Gibson turned on the television and the image of a white Cadillac Brougham, bathed in spotlights, filled the screen. “Local man shot by Metro police,” a headline announced. Hours earlier, Rondha had called an ambulance for Stanley. Now she dialed 911 again.
“I think that’s my husband you guys killed,” she recalls telling the dispatcher who answered.
On that night in December 2011, three years before many Americans began questioning police use of deadly force, local leaders had just started acknowledging two decades of shootings by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers. But the killing of Stanley Gibson, cornered by police in a tan stucco apartment complex he apparently mistook for his own, was a flash point.
It led to a shift - starting with Las Vegas’ rewrite of its use-of-force rules and ramped up training to de-escalate tense encounters - that could offer lessons as other departments confront questions about how to stem shootings by police.
Las Vegas has tested many changes as the first department in the country to complete a “collaborative” Justice Department review. Some critics said it did not go far enough. But shootings by officers, which peaked at 25 in 2010, declined to 13 in 2013 and 16 last year. This year, through mid-June, Metro officers shot three people, killing one.
Even critics credit the decrease at least partly to new training.
After high-profile deaths at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, New York and Baltimore, calls are growing to overhaul police training as experts point to widespread deficiencies. Ohio’s law, for instance, requires just four hours of annual training for experienced officers. Arkansas allows new officers to begin patrolling without training, requiring only that they qualify with a firearm, then complete the academy in their first nine months on the job. Individual departments set more stringent requirements.
But identifying gaps in training does not settle debate over how to stem shootings by officers whose use of deadly force is nearly always ruled justified.
“The problem is the events leading up to that instant. Could the officer have done something else that would have avoided that instant altogether?” says William Sousa, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who’s studying Metro’s use of body cameras.
“I think what has happened is the culture has changed now, as a result of the training and as a result of the policy, that you have officers who are … essentially avoiding situations where they have to make that split-second decision,” he says.
Others are skeptical, including Rondha Gibson, who won a $1.5 million settlement from Las Vegas police.
“They say that things happen for a reason, that his death helped a lot. Well that hasn’t helped me,” says Gibson, who keeps her husband’s bullet-riddled leather jacket in a living room shrine. “They can say we believe in training, we believe in all this and that, but at the end of the day they are trained for the cops to go home.”
The U.S. has 18,000 police departments. While many countries manage police through a national agency, training regimens in the U.S. are the patchwork product of disparate laws, budgets and priorities.
But policing experts say that training often falls short.
A 2008 survey of more than 300 departments nationwide found one-third limited officers’ annual deadly-force training to requalifying in shooting skills, without any focus on judgment or tactics. More than three-fourths did not share findings from police shooting investigations with trainers, negating the chance to design lessons that might prevent such incidents.
That raises serious “concerns about how prepared many police officers are” for encounters where they might use deadly force, concluded survey author Gregory Morrison, a professor of criminal justice at Ball State University.
Tight budgets amplify the challenge. In 2012, 55 percent of departments surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum said they’d cut training.
Another survey, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found police academies spend an average of 60 hours on firearms training and 51 hours teaching self-defense. They devote 8 hours - a single day - to mediation and managing conflict.
More departments have embraced “reality-based training,” equipping officers with guns firing blanks or marking cartridges in computer simulations or live scenarios. But there’s little research on what works, Morrison said.
Meanwhile, calls for police to slow fast-moving confrontations and step back to defuse them have sparked tensions and concerns for officers’ safety.
“How is it we can enter situations in a smarter way to create space between us and our adversaries?” says David Klinger, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who, as a rookie officer in California in 1981, shot and killed a man who was attacking his partner. “I think if we train officers in sound field tactics and hold them to a high standard of performance, that we can reduce shootings.”
Critics of Las Vegas Metro complained about overly aggressive policing long before Stanley Gibson was killed.
A pair of shootings in mid-2010 increased scrutiny. Trevon Cole, 21, who had sold marijuana to undercover officers, was flushing pot down the toilet when Detective Bryan Yant fatally shot him in the head. It was the third shooting for Yant, who said he believed, mistakenly, that Cole had a gun. Erik Scott, 38, a West Point graduate with a permit to carry a concealed weapon, was shot to death after police were called about a customer with a gun at a Costco.
In late 2011, The Las Vegas Review-Journal published an investigation detailing 115 killings by Metro officers over two decades. At least 33 of those killed were unarmed. Less than 9 percent of Las Vegas’ population is black, but they accounted for 30 percent of those shot.
Weeks later, Gibson, short of medication for his mental illness, called police, demanding an officer come to his home. Over the next 37 hours, officers found him wandering through moving traffic and throwing chips from a casino table. He was arrested, quickly released, briefly hospitalized, then refused an ambulance.
Later that Sunday night, police were called to an apartment complex next to one the Gibsons had moved to less than a month earlier, by a woman reporting two black men trying to break in.
Officers blocked Gibson’s Cadillac with cruisers. He ignored commands barked through bullhorns and floored the gas, spinning the tires so hard smoke poured from the wheel wells. Commanders devised a plan to fire a bean bag through the rear window and gas him out. But “a series of failures ensued,” the Clark County District Attorney found.
When the bag shattered a side window, Officer Jesus Arevalo opened fire with his AR-15, striking Gibson four times. Police blamed miscommunication, including radio failure. Arevalo was fired, but receives disability pay.
“That was the case that kind of changed everything,” said Cal Potter, an attorney who has represented shooting victims’ families, including Rondha Gibson. “I think people started looking at those issues like if … it can happen to Stanley Gibson, a war veteran, then it can happen to anyone.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the local NAACP petitioned the Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation. Instead, Metro and a different arm of Justice announced what they called “collaborative reform.”
Las Vegas was the first department to undergo such a review, later initiated in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Spokane, Washington and elsewhere. Las Vegas is the only department to have completed the process.
Allen Lichtenstein, former general counsel for the local ACLU, said, “It was more of a management consultant kind of thing than anything that really had any teeth to it, so that was a problem to us. That being said, they made recommendations and, to a significant extent, Metro started listening to them.”
The audit exposed a list of problems, a number centered on training.
Many officers designated to deal with Las Vegas’ sizable mentally ill population had gone nine years without recertification training. Approximately 15 percent of all officers failed to get required defensive tactical training each year.
Audits showed Las Vegas had a history of traffic stops that led to shootings, as well as errors in situations involving large numbers of officers. But the department did little to prepare them for those unpredictable scenarios, a Justice consultant found.
Officers were getting no instruction in de-escalating tense situations. Outages and misuse of radios factored in 40 percent of shootings, but they were rarely used in training that might help correct the problems.
“We had to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘Well, how do we fix this?’” says Capt. Matt McCarthy, who leads the department’s Office of Internal Oversight. “We had to fix what we knew was not right.”
Gunning across the pavement, a white SUV screeches to a stop alongside a bus shelter.
A man in wraparound shades jumps out and forces his way into a black Mercury sedan at a stop sign, just as a police cruiser pulls up a few feet off the rear bumper. Two officers from Las Vegas’ sprawling Northwest Area Command crouch low, pistols drawn, as a half dozen others from Sgt. Sara Bradshaw’s squad arrive to provide backup.
“This ain’t right, man!” the suspect, armed with a knife and gun, shouts from inside the car, refusing to exit.
“Put the knife down! We don’t want to hurt you,” shouts an officer in an orange T-shirt. Slowly, the man steps out of the car, following commands to raise his hands and step backward until he is taken into custody.
“OK, guys, get everybody out of handcuffs,” instructor Pete Kruse says, entering a training scenario where everyone - including the carjacker and a hostage first assumed to be an accomplice- is a cop. Then it’s back to a classroom to dissect the decisions that framed the mock confrontation.
“Did you guys feel comfortable standing right behind that vehicle knowing that he had a gun?” Kruse asks. “Or do you think maybe it would’ve been better to get at least one car back to create a little more space, a little bit more time and distance?”
The question is key given a Justice consultant’s findings that over the years Las Vegas police routinely failed to slow the momentum of high-stakes encounters, resulting in “errors and fatalities.”
The review lead to 75 recommendations for change. When it began, Las Vegas was just rolling out reality-based training, four-hour sessions now required annually for all officers.
In the years since, the consultant found, Las Vegas also has trained hundreds of additional officers to deal with people with mental illnesses. It has struggled to incorporate de-escalation into other training. Trainees are now equipped with radios.
Still, in the afternoon’s second scenario - centered on a man with a knife who barricades himself and his sister in their home - a frustrated Bradshaw shouts at fellow officers to stay off the radio, to keep the frequency free for exchange of vital information.
Such moments shape encounters that might lead police to use deadly force, said Lt. Rob Lundquist, who leads the department’s training program.
“We want them, No. 1, to be safe. But we want them to make sure they’re making the right decisions,” he said.
It has not always gone smoothly. Some instructors “expressed outright disapproval” of the new use-of-force protocol, the Justice consultant found in 2012.
“When you have the trainers actually mocking the training, how seriously are the trainees going to take it?” said Andre Lagomarsino, a lawyer for Trevon Cole’s family.
McCarthy acknowledges dissent, but says that problem was corrected.
In addition, the officers’ union has discouraged those involved in shootings from giving interviews to investigators. It hired the detective who killed Cole to advise officers after shootings.
Lagomarsino and other critics say they’ll withhold final judgment, but that training appears to have reduced shootings, particularly those resulting from police mistakes of fact. After deconstructing decisions made in training scenarios, officers, too, are measured in praising its value.
“As good as this is for us, you can never get the same adrenaline rush as you can on the street. But it definitely helps,” says Greg Price, an officer with 17 years on the force.
A colleague, Jason de la Garrigue, says such training reminds him of the split-second decisions of street patrol he largely left behind during five years on the vice squad. But he questioned the impact that training will have on reshaping situations that unfold so quickly.
“Stepping back and slowing things down versus going in and pulling the trigger,” he says, “I can’t say it’s going to help us reduce (shootings), but it’s a start.”
Across the U.S., police training is getting new attention, often after highly publicized deaths.
- In Missouri, a commission appointed by the governor after the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson officer unanimously backed sharply expanded training for police in the state’s most populous counties. The proposal would increase training from 48 hours to 120 every three years.
“The importance of practice is it gives the opportunities for officers to make different decisions,” Daniel Isom, the former St. Louis police chief who chairs the commission, said in endorsing the reforms. He singled out training encouraging police to increase time and distance between themselves and suspects, referring to it as “tactical retreat.”
But asking cops to step back comes with risks, says Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association union.
“When police officers under-react it has deadly consequences, too,” Roorda says. “I don’t want to sell a bill of goods to the public and pretend doing something that law enforcement has always done, which is training for whatever is required, that is not new.”
- In Ohio, a panel named by the attorney general found the state mandated significantly less officer training than its neighbors.
Reginald Wilkinson, the former state corrections director who chaired the commission, says he was “flabbergasted” that some police departments only complied with Ohio’s minimum of 4 hours of annual training.
“Training may not always be the answer. It’s hard for me to believe, however, it won’t cover 90 percent of what happens on the street,” he said.
The panel called for increasing annual training requirements 10-fold to 40 hours, with time devoted to dealing with people with mental illnesses and reality-based scenarios in proposed “training villages” at state academies.
- In New York City, the police department is retraining its 35,000 uniformed officers following the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, by a white officer.
A new three-day course focuses on teaching officers to defuse potentially violent confrontations by staying calm and avoiding unnecessary force. Officers will train in role-playing scenarios using sets of city street scenes, as well as tactics for taking down uncooperative suspects without injury.
“It’s both praiseworthy and indictable that they’re just getting around to this in 2015,” said Eugene O’Donnell, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “At least they’re admitting they need to do this.”
Riding solo in Charlie Sector, south of Las Vegas’ downtown, Dave Milewski is 3½ hours into the swing shift when the radio crackles: “Subject in a blue sedan fired one shot out of a vehicle at a residence.”
This is no training scenario.
Milewski, a native Chicagoan who’s patrolled here for more than eight years, projects calm. “If you do the job the right way,” he says, “you have nothing to worry about.”
Still, when he pulls into the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, alongside apartments with bars on second-floor windows, the dynamic is not so easy to decipher.
An older woman, visibly distraught, tells how a man she did not recognize shot at her building. Residents of a neighboring complex describe a second man with a gun, running through the lot.
Police know this area as one with many young men active in gangs. Earlier this year, a woman was shot in an apartment walkway.
With evening light fading, officers’ questions lead them to a unit below the stairs with an Oakland Raiders banner hanging in the window - and the second gunman.
Only his long-barreled revolver turns out to be a carbon dioxide-powered BB gun. However much it resembles a real weapon, it is perfectly legal.
It gives Milewski and colleagues a chuckle. But it’s also a reminder of the miscues and surprises training can’t always anticipate.
“You run out and a cop sees you in a dark alley with one of those, you’re getting shot,” Lt. Dave Valenta says, eyeing the BB gun, set atop the hood of a cruiser.
Back on patrol, Milewski recounts the only time he fired his gun on duty - two shots that missed a woman trying to run down him and his partner. Milewski says he didn’t recognize that threat until it was bearing down on him, despite the heightened awareness that comes with countless nights responding to calls in tough neighborhoods.
“You have weeks where every night you’re drawing your gun,” he says. “You just never know.”
Associated Press writer Colleen Long in New York contributed to this report. Adam Geller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller
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